Let me start by offering a “Merry Christmas” to all of you pro-tradition Christmas lovers who are celebrating the full season between Dec. 25th and the all-to-overlooked Feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6th. We are talking about two crucial days that form bookends that support one another.
This brings me to a “Houses of Worship” article that ran in the Dec. 24th issue of the Wall Street Journal. I have received quite a few emails and Facebook messages about this, for reasons that will soon be apparent. I hesitated to write about this here, except that it actually focuses on a few issues of history and fact that affect reporters who cover both the ancient churches and the many Protestant flocks that place little or no emphasis on the Christian calendar.
The article was written by a Protestant writer named John Wilson who edits the respected bimonthly called Books & Culture, which is part of the wider world of the company best known for publishing Christianity Today. Here’s the headline:
Do Christians Overemphasize Christmas?
Some theologians claim that Easter is more important. That’s wrong. When we celebrate one, we celebrate the other.
Part of the problem is tied up those words “some theologians,” especially when linked with the words “more important.” Here’s the extended opening of this piece:
One of the hallowed Christmas traditions is the Anti-Christmas Rant. It takes many forms, and anyone reading this newspaper will be familiar with most of them. But unless you routinely hang out with people who argue about theology the way many Americans argue about politics or football, you may not have encountered one variant of the Rant that has been gaining momentum in recent years.
It goes like this: Christmas isn’t simply bad for all the usual reasons — the grotesque materialism that its celebration encourages, the assault of sentimentality and kitsch that somehow seems to grow worse every year, and the smarmy wrapping of it all in the most inflated spiritual rhetoric.
On top of all that, says the Ranter, there is a grievous theological error. In placing so much emphasis on Christmas, Christians fail to grasp the meaning of their own story — in which Easter clearly should take pride of place. This complaint isn’t new, but it’s been voiced more frequently of late. And not from the fringes, where members of tiny sects patiently explain that Christmas and Easter are pagan holidays that conscientious Christians must boycott. Well-respected voices are making the argument.
There’s Terry Mattingly of getreligion.org, for one, and N.T. Wright, a former Bishop of Durham in the Church of England. And Rodney Clapp, who presides over Brazos Press, a major Christian publisher.
Where to start with what’s wrong with this analysis?
First, let me join in the views of many of my online correspondents who noted that I should be proud to be included as a “Ranter” in this lofty circle. Indeed, that is true!
What does Wilson say is the key content of our rants? Well, here is one of the key quotes selected from Clapp:
“The climax of the four Gospels is not Christmas … but the events we celebrate as Easter.”
Now, as it turns out, my ranting views are not actually quoted in the WSJ piece.
However, I know from correspondence with Wilson that it was a GetReligion post written last Easter that underlined our sincere differences of belief. Click here to read the whole “What’s Easter about, anyway?” piece, if you wish. Here is an early chunk of material that includes my alleged rant.
My family returned to Baltimore last night after celebrating a joyful Pascha (that’s Easter in the ancient churches of the East) at a church in Salem, Mass., with family and soon-to-be family. Anyway, as we drove home from the airport we made a tiny detour to buy some fried chicken — which is the kind of thing that Orthodox people do when they have a teen-aged son and the family has gone vegan for all of Great Lent.
As we walked in the store, there was an interesting dialogue going on between a patron and the young man behind the counter. To cut to the chase, they were listing all of the reasons that they dislike Easter.
Well, you know, the holiday kind of messed up some people’s work schedules, there weren’t any good parties to go to and, other than the odd chocolate bunny or two, the whole thing was a bit of downer in the gifts department. And then there was the fact that it was so much more religious than Christmas. What was that all about?
Chicken in hand, I joined in for a minute or two. There isn’t any doubt, I noted, that Easter is the single most important day in the Christian calendar.
This statement drew puzzled looks. Easter, asked the guy behind the counter, is more important than Christmas? Why? Christmas is about the birth of Jesus, he said. Easter was about “all that rising from the dead stuff. Right?”
Right, I said.
Please note that in this rather humble exchange I referenced the traditions and rites of the Christian calendar. It’s also crucial that the marketplace apologist with whom I was arguing was offended by the intensely Christian content of the Easter season.
What? As opposed to the faith-free season of Christmas?
Here is the ultimate irony. I have, in the past few decades, poured out oceans of ink arguing that — in the context of post-Christian America — hardly anyone is celebrating the actual 12-day Christmas season, as defined in Christian doctrine and traditions. In fact, I may have written more articles and posts about this subject than any other linked to worship life in the modern church. I mean, click here or, if you dare, here.
In short, I am about as pro-Christmas and Epiphany as a guy can get. I would argue that Christmas — the actual season — doesn’t get enough MSM coverage, as opposed to “The Holidays,” the cultural phenomenon in the marketplace.
I would go even further the say that the other great feasts of the Incarnation — especially that of the Annunciation — are sinfully overlooked in most churches, especially in Protestant sanctuaries (but sadly in Catholic and Orthodox settings as well). Thus, these feasts get very little news coverage, as well.
But that isn’t the real issue here, methinks.
Based on the content of the WSJ article (included material that was edited out), I am confident that Bishop Wright and Clapp would join me in wanting to ask Wilson this question: So simply noting the historical fact that Christmas is the faith’s second-ranked feast (with Advent/Nativity Lent as the second-longest penitential season), in comparison with Pascha as the great feast of feasts (preceded by Great and Holy Lent as the longest and most intense penitential season) is a rant against Christmas?
One more question: Saying things like this will get you lumped, even tangentially, in the Wall Street Journal with fringe folks who claim that Christmas should not be celebrated at all?
Now, I think I had better stop right there — before I am tempted to rant.
Meanwhile, let me once again urge GetReligion readers to be alert to mainstream-media coverage of the 12-day Christmas season and/or Epiphany. And, once again, let me offer to those who are celebrating this great fast of the Incarnation: Merry Christmas. And to the Orthodox: Christ is born! Glorify Him!